News
Art in Review: James Lee Byars
The New York Times
Holland Cotter
9 June 2006

Some years ago I dropped by Michael Werner's gallery the morning after a solo exhibition by James Lee Byars had opened. I was alone in the room except for a man sitting by the windows. As I peered at the enigmatic, milk-white marble sculptures in vitrines, the man came over to me. He wore a black cloak, top hat and eye-mask. With a few ceremonious gestures, but without saying a word, he gave me a tour of the show. Then he returned, still silent, to his seat to await the next visitor. 

My docent was, of course, the artist. His brief performance evoked a magic act, Noh theater and the stock presentational poses used by models in television advertisements. Graceful but ungrand, it was well suited to the plain, witty, mysterious sculptures on view. 

By that time, in the early 1990's, Mr. Byars had had shows at Mary Boone and Werner, though his main career was in Europe. Americans woke up to him only when he died in 1997, though they have been paying attention since. The Whitney Museum of American Art recently devoted a show to him. Now three Manhattan galleries with six spaces among them, are offering a kind of survey of his work, organized by the art historian Klaus Ottmann. Born in Detroit in 1932, Mr. Byars came of age in the 1950's, a decade in which the cosmopolitan alternative thinking of the 1960's was in development. In 1958 he went to Japan for nearly 10 years. There he steeped himself in a performance-based aesthetic of evanescence. Later, when he made Venice his home, he adapted reductiveness to an art of material luxe. 

Sometimes the transfer was literal. The large, round, sectional sculpture called ''The Sun'' (1990) at Perry Rubenstein (at the 527 West 23rd Street gallery) is basically a marble version of accordion-style paper pieces that Mr. Byars made earlier in Japan. In ''The Angel'' (1989) at Werner, a curving stick figure of Venetian glass spheres looks both very present and barely there. Certain late pieces are passive-aggressively assertive. The rim of the gilded table called ''The Moon Books'' at Mary Boone is positioned so close to a gallery wall as to thwart circumnambulation. 

It is tempting to fit Mr. Byars into existing slots: performance art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, whatever. But, like the European artists to whom he felt closest, Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Beuys, he resists this. His extravagance and his privacy combine to keep him outside the fold, making him too precious for some, too inscrutable for others. 

And then there are his philosophical concerns: Big Ideas, or rather Big Questions, about perfection, death and eternity, couched in a language that embraces art history, science and department-store window display. (He listed his biggest influences as Gertrude Stein, Einstein and Wittgenstein.) Certain young American artists are focusing on the same questions; a few are even using versions of Byars's language to do so. He just makes sense now. In a culture of noise, his alternative of silence has much to say.